Outcasts and Statues

“Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.”

These words from the prophet Isaiah announce God’s intention not only to gather the Israelites who were dispersed all over the world, but to gather foreigners who seek the God of Israel as well. We see this promise being fulfilled in today’s gospel where Jesus heals the tormented daughter of a Canaanite woman, a descendent of Ham, the son of Noah, who was cursed for looking upon his drunken father’s nakedness, in stark contrast to Shem, the progenitor of the Israelites, who covered his father’s nakedness, thus preserving his dignity, a tragic incident that led many Israelites to call any descendant of Ham a dog. But not Jesus, who, when this woman approaches him when she discovers that he is in her own foreign country and asks for his help, he instantly heals her daughter when he recognizes her great faith in him as great David’s greater Son.

But let’s get back to the Israelites themselves for a moment. The Bible makes it very clear that the reason they themselves were repeatedly cast out of their homeland was because they broke the precious covenant that God had made with them and only them. God used first the Assyrians and later the Babylonians as the rod of his loving discipline with the effect that it has been estimated by scholars that ninety percent of God’s chosen people were living as outcasts, scattered throughout the nations of the world, making a home and a life for themselves in foreign lands. Even today, I am told, there are more Jews living in Miami than there are in their ancient homeland of Israel. I doubt many of those folks in Miami would identify themselves as outcasts. Rather, they would probably consider themselves to be right at home as proud Americans, some of whom also gather in synagogues to honor their faith as sons and daughters of Abraham.

Just as most Jews living in America probably don’t think of themselves as outcasts, the same is also likely true for many of us as Christians. But the fact is, both the apostle James and the apostle Peter in their letters to the early church, refer to the church as a Christian diaspora, similar to the Jewish diaspora, as those who are living away from their homeland, who were cast away from the center of Jewish life within the Temple in Jerusalem and scapegoated by Roman society and culture, because they realized that the death and resurrection of Jesus had bound them together as a new temple, a temple of the Holy Spirit, as the very Body of Christ in this world but not of this world, and therefore a community that understands its true home to be elsewhere than in this world, with Jesus as Head of the Body, now reigning above every earthly kingdom and authority.

The church, therefore, becomes a kind of foreign embassy in all the nations of the world, a place where people can come to find out what life is like in that foreign country which has become our true, second-birth native country, the kingdom of God and we, it’s ambassadors. Christians are, of necessity and by definition, essentially homesick. So, it should come as no surprise to us, no less than it did in James and Peter’s day, when the world treats us as outcasts, because that is what we are. And while I am probably no different than you in my desire to fit in, to make myself at home in this world, God, out of his love for me, will frustrate that desire because this is not my home, as much as I might rightfully love it here as part of God’s glorious creation. We must never forget that every human being, as a child of Adam and Eve, has been cast out of the Garden of Eden and we must now seek that even better place prepared for us by God for those who will not settle for anything less, whose hearts will remain restless until they find their rest in him.

The Bible doesn’t tell us explicitly why Jesus went to Tyre and Sidon in the first place. When he states that “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”, I believe we can infer that he was doing what Isaiah said the Messiah would do: gathering any Israelites he might be able to find outside their ancient homeland, descendants of those cast out long ago by the Assyrians or Babylonians, offering them the same opportunity to be found and to find their longed-for Messiah in addition to those living within their ancient homeland.

And what we discover is that Jesus fulfills Isaiah’s prophecy completely by gathering in faithful foreigners as well, those, like this woman, who believe that a crumb of God’s mercy falling from his table is all that is necessary for anyone to taste manna from heaven and to experience the welcome into their true homeland as well, which is different than the place of their first birth.

It is from this perspective that I would like to share a few thoughts about statues, since they have dominated the news lately.

I can still remember an impromptu conversation I had with an upper classman at the University of North Carolina as I stared, as a wide-eyed freshman, at a statue of a confederate soldier holding a rifle at the very heart of the campus, the oldest state university in our country. This fellow student unwittingly gave me a clue about the new world that I was entering. This soldier had been nicknamed Silent Sam, I was told. He went on to explain that the reason he was called Silent Sam was because he only fired his rifle if a virgin walked by.

That legend, whether he or I realized it at the time, spoke volumes about the values and presuppositions of my new world. It certainly wasn’t Bob Jones University. If there were outcasts on my campus, they would be the students who resisted the impulse to initiate intimate relationships with other students outside of marriage.

And I find it curious, reflecting on that conversation nearly fifty years ago, that no one I knew gave the fact that Silent Sam was a confederate soldier, and all that he could mean in the eyes of other beholders, was not seen or reinforced, but that nameless confederate soldier had morphed into a symbol of the sexual revolution of the sixties and seventies rather than as a reminder of the awful reality of our Civil War, the tragic outcome of other awful realities that still haunt us today.

And I also find it interesting, in retrospect and considering the current impulse to remove confederate statues, that even then, my alma mater, was rightfully being humbled by a federal government law suit against the administration in order to address and eliminate racial discrimination policies and practices, choosing to take on UNC, precisely because it was proud of its liberal inclinations, challenged now to put those inclinations into real and practical effect, which they did as an example of how other southern colleges and universities might rectify their own policies and practices or, if they resisted, to be treated as outcasts by the larger academic community. And I can’t help but wonder if removing Silent Sam will be the logical extension of the more substantive changes that have long been in effect. Indeed, I read in this morning’s Ledger that this is indeed what some are calling for.

I share all of this because all of us, in one way or another, know what it’s like to be an outcast, oftentimes, like the Israelites in the Bible, with good cause, as the painful discipline of a loving heavenly Father who refuses to let us get too comfortable in whatever other worlds we may live in apart from his kingdom, and who uses our homesickness to help redirect us to our true home with him, a home that is meant for everyone, including those we think are outcasts and often treat as outcasts.

Though I cannot begin to appreciate what it would be like to be an African American, as an American of German descent, born in the South and raised in West Virginia, “Nazi”, “redneck” and “hick” are labels that still have a personal sting to them, no less than the sting that Canaanite woman must have felt to be reminded that many Jews still considered her a dog. But God gave her the grace to rise above that sting out love for her daughter, and that is the grace he offers everyone who knows what it is like to be treated as an outcast, for the sake of the whole human family.

Let us thank and praise God this morning that he didn’t stay at home and leave us to fend for ourselves in our earthly dwellings, built upon the shifting sands of our own thoughts and the cultural assumptions of this world where the storms often wreak havoc on individuals and tear at the fabric of our society. God sent his Son into this world to gather us into his kingdom and to open the door, through his Son’s death and resurrection, into that home, a home that Paul believes remains open even to his fellow Jews who cast out Jesus but who, in the end, will take advantage of God’s infinite mercy, even as the Canaanite woman did. AMEN.